Archive for the ‘religious art’ Category

the making – and unmaking – of a sand mandala   Leave a comment

Art? Ritual? Devotional image?  Sand mandalas made by Tibetan Buddhist monks are all three plus much in-between.   In February I spent five days watching them make a mandalaat the Mattie Kelly Arts Center of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Florida. My report is in yesterday’s WSJ and, here below, are photos I took throughout the process.

The monks are from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India; they are in the US for about 15 months, based out of the Mystical Arts of Tibet in Atlanta.  From here they travel across the country creating sand mandalas, chanting and/or performing Tibetan music and dances.


Frames rule   1 comment

Slap a piece of wood around a painting, and you’ve created a border  — a signal that the viewer is leaving one kind of space and moving into another.  Carve and gild that border and you’re declaring that what is inside is special, very special.

And sometimes the frame itself can grow so exuberant, so loudly and proudly does it proclaim the specialness of what it contains that viewers have to work really hard to tear their attention away from the  border…to the special object it is framing.

Altar in a baroque church in Lecce -- is there any other kind?

Altar in a baroque church in Lecce — is there any other kind?


causeway into Angkor Thom

Whether or not the ancient Khmer had a word for it,  they certainly knew how to express the power of transitions and threshholds in stone.  Sure wish “liminality” had some of that oomph.

gate into Angkor Thom

nature adds its own drama  in Ta Phrom

doorway in Preah Ko temple


Vajrapani - Bodhisattva

A worthwhile collection of Tibetan art in Newark — that in itself to most will seem like the ultimate oxymoron.  As one friend wrote to me, “I thought Newark was a cultural wasteland.”  Wrong.  At least not within the wall of the Newark Museum where a very dynamic curator has reinstalled the Tibetan galleries, striking a balance between treating works as religious icon, cultural artifact, and art (I try to convey a sense of that in my review for Wall Street Journal).   To get a sense of the museum’s TIbetan collection, check out its web site as well as its pages on the  Himalayan Art web site.

A 9/11 BUDDHA   1 comment

A steel cross-beam survives the devastation of 9/11, becoming a symbol of hope for many.. and  yet another reason to fight over the role of religion in the public square.  It is a piece of steel that happens to echo a shape that has, over the last 2000 years, become the principal symbol of Christianity: a cross.  Understandably, in the weeks that followed 9/11, this unscathed fragment became the repository of intense sadness and an equally intense hunger for hope.  Removed to a churchyard, the piece of steel shed whatever ecumenical appeal it had held so that, years later, it returns to Ground Zero no longer as a piece of surviving steel but as an exclusively Christian symbol — hence the ruckus and the efforts to reclassify it as historic artifact.  So back and forth it goes across semantic and conceptual borders when, in truth, it belongs to all of these at the same time.

On September 11, 2001, I was among the hundreds standing on rooftops of  apartment buildings in Brooklyn, just across the river from Manhattan.  Against the bright blue sky a column of smoke rose and arched toward us, while all around the air was flecked with bright, white flashes: sheets of paper floating and flitting, reflecting sunlight as they twirled in the wind.  A small piece of paper drifted down and fell at my feet.  It was a scrap, vaguely leaf-shaped and only slightly bigger than the pad of my thumb.  It was part of a book with text that included the words ‘India’ and ‘Burma.’  At the time I was studying art from those countries.  Intrigued I turned the scrap of paper over and found myself looking at the black and white reproduction of a stone buddha head.  And I felt hope.  Everything that this figure represents can survive:  compassion,  love, man’s capacity to transcend false divisions and glimpse selflessness — all this  can live through the hell of hatred, all this can survive murder.

I imagine this is the same hope that filled the worker who stumbled upon the fragment of steel rising up, in the form of a cross,  from the smoking rubble.  It is an object.  It is a symbol of religion.  It is the central icon of a particular set of beliefs.  It is an artifact of a particular time and place.  It is a reminder of  hope in the wake of a terrorist attack.  Just like the Buddha head that fell at my feet on a rooftop in Brooklyn.

Posted July 30, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Asian art, Religion, religious art

Tagged with ,


Museums just love sand mandalas —  and every time I see Tibetan monks streaming brightly colored sand into intricate patterns surrounded by people like me snapping photographs I wonder: what are they doing here?

Sand mandala at Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ

Part of me feels strongly that, if a public museum is going to host a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, then it should be ready to have a priest come in and consecrate hosts before a triptych in the European Medieval galleries.  The fact that museums don’t — and none do to my knowledge — leaves them open to attack on two fronts:

– museums can be accused of dismissing Buddhist sacred rituals as mere artifact and curiosity while considering Christian rituals so sacred as to be out of bounds (indeed, Blake Gopnik made this argument in the Washington Post)


– museums could be alternatively accused of using public funds to favor one religion over another.

Now, the very presence of monks in the museum — not to mention the fact that the Dalai Lama himself consecrated a shrine in the Newark Museum’s Tibetan galleries — pretty much says that  Tibetan Buddhists don’t feel any slight.  And since the Newark Museum has no Medieval galleries with art from Christian churches, it can’t be accused of favoring one religion over another (which is one of things I argued in writing about another instance of religion in museums).

Another part of me, however, sees no harm in inviting practitioners of a religion to show us their rituals and explain their beliefs.  On the contrary.  We walk into churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all the time in the hope of understanding people of another faith and culture.  The challenges in both instances strikes me as the same: namely making sure that the approach is respectful and does not reduce human beings and their beliefs to artifact.  You know, the way natural history museums in their early days used to display peoples of other (usually deemed more primitive) cultures.

Leaning over the balustrade at the Newark museum, with my phone in camera mode, I could not help but also wonder whether this was how Tibet is going to survive, no longer a country tied to mountains and valleys and rivers, but as collection of uprooted cultural/religious events that double as tourist attractions and living art exhibitions in museums and fairs across the globe.

Posted May 13, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Asian art, Religion, religious art

Tagged with , ,